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Archaeology under the canopy

October 13, 2016

A Life's Work

Indiana Jones has nothing on Anabel Ford. The daughter of a Hollywood actress and a world-renowned sociologist, Ford is the archaeological powerhouse who in 1983 rediscovered the ancient Maya city of El Pilar.

Once home to a thriving population of more than 20,000 people, El Pilar straddles the present-day border of Belize and Guatemala. Lying beneath the lush canopy of the Maya forest, the city reached its zenith around 700 A.D. It is now protected as El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna, encompassing 5,000 acres and an ancient Maya center that includes 150 acres of temples, plazas and palaces.

Ford, who has been working in the Maya forest since 1972, came across the city site of El Pilar while doing survey work in the region. She spent the next three decades mapping, excavating and studying the site and its surroundings, and has made El Pilar a unique model of binational cooperation, community empowerment, conservation and preservation.

That Ford would gravitate toward this field of study comes as no surprise. She was an experienced world traveler by junior high school, having considered herself at home throughout Europe and the Middle East -- Rome at age 4, Vienna at 6, Madrid at 10 and Beirut at 14. "To me, being an archaeologist is studying the common human experience in different environments in different times," she says. "I've traveled enough to know there are common threads, common stories."

A documentary film highlighting Ford's decades-long work at the ancient city site and surrounding forest, "El Pilar: Preserving the Maya Legacy," premiered Oct. 1, at the Catalina Film Festival. The film, which received the Award of Excellence in the conservation category, can be viewed online at

The Forest Garden

The ancient Maya have long been exalted for their architectural and artistic grandeur, but they also were superb gardeners who domesticated their wild jungles and tropical landscape and established their cities based on forest gardens.

And yet, for decades, the Maya -- and their descendants -- have gotten a bad rap from archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scholars who cite the ancient civilization's agricultural practices for its eventual collapse. While they agree that other factors contributed to the fall of Maya society roughly 1,000 years ago, they claim the civilization's slash-and-burn approach to farming caused such widespread environmental devastation that the land simply could not sustain them.

But Ford's long-term research suggests an alternative -- the forest gardens encountered by the Spanish and cultivated by the Maya today demonstrate their great appreciation for the environment.

The Maya, who farmed without draft animals or plows, used stone tools and fire to follow what Ford calls the "milpa cycle." It is an ancient land use system by which a closed canopy forest is transformed into an open field for annual crops, then a managed orchard garden, and then a closed canopy forest once again. The cycle covers a time period of 12 to 24 years.

A misconception about the milpa cycle is that the fields lie fallow after several years of annual crop cultivation. "In reality, in the 'high-performance milpa,' fields are never abandoned, even when they are forested," Ford explained. "The milpa cycle is a rotation of annuals with successive stages of forest perennials during which all phases receive careful human management.

Logging and Looting: Threats to El Pilar

El Pilar's status as a binational cultural reserve does not protect it from those who would take advantage of the forest's treasures. On a seemingly regular basis, Ford comes up against the evidence of loggers who illegally strip the forest of prized hardwood trees such as mahogany and cedar.

"We've seen logs recently cut, we even see them being hauled out -- 500 meters right inside the reserve, right off the road," she said. "It's appalling that someone thinks they can do that."

On one such occasion, as Ford drove along the rough and rutted unpaved road that leads in and out of El Pilar, she was flagged down by the reserve's caretaker, David Landero, machete in hand. Bad news: Sometime during the previous night loggers had cut down a great mahogany tree. They had left it where it landed planning to return the following day to chop it into more manageable pieces and haul it out.

Ford and her team hiked up the hill to investigate, and as they soon discovered, much to their dismay, the tree the caretaker had seen was one of five that particular group of loggers had felled.

Where Past Meets Present

It is estimated that El Pilar served the surrounding populace for 1,800 years, and for about 300 years at its height it was home to 20,000 Maya. When Ford first began excavating the city site much of the area had not been trodden upon in more than five centuries. But now, after decades of research and, more recently, thanks to 21st-century surveying technology such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), Ford has created a detailed picture of life in the ancient city and opened El Pilar to the world.

For the most part, the monuments at El Pilar have been left shrouded by the protective mantle of nature. Trees have been allowed to shade the main plazas, providing a cool refuge in the otherwise hot and sunny tropics. This emphasis on the ecosystem creates a magical atmosphere of a lost city in the jungle, teeming with exotic flora and fauna, much of which is quickly becoming scarce worldwide.

Today, people visiting El Pilar can step back in time and imagine the Maya gathering in Plaza Copal or one of the 25 other open spaces. In the Tzunu'un Forest Garden, a restoration of an original Maya home, they can explore the surrounding garden and get a glimpse of Maya life that once existed outside the world of temples and palaces.

And with its tremendous historical, cultural and environmental value, El Pilar's future is still being molded.

"In the proximal future, my aim is to have a wonderful understanding of the cultural resources of El Pilar," said Ford. "But I want to turn it over to the two countries that are responsible for it. I have the image of a peace park across two nations. The Maya forest is a tri-national asset that covers three countries -- Belize, Guatemala and Mexico."

But more than that, she added, "It's a world asset."

Perhaps one of El Pilar's greatest challenges in the future is education -- from a break in the chain of knowledge as master forest gardeners find fewer and fewer young people interested in the knowledge they have to pass on, to farmers whose modern methods call for clearing swaths of forest to create space for large monocrop fields, to local residents who don't see the incredible value that exists in their own backyards.

"The greatest threat to El Pilar, I think, is that people don't understand what archaeology under the canopy is," said Ford. "A tour guide can say 'Well, you can come to El Pilar, but there's nothing to see.' Or, the tour guide can say, 'You've watched the Indiana Jones film -- at El Pilar you can live it for yourself.'"

University of California - Santa Barbara

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